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Jonathan Woolf
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alternatively Crotchet



Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Overture, The Flying Dutchman (1843)  [9.57] (1)
Lohengrin, Prelude to Act 1 (1848) [9.24] (2)
Wesendonck Lieder (1857-58) [19:59] (3)
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod (1859) [16:39] (3)
Kirsten Flagstad – talk on singing Wagner
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano) (3)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham (1, 2)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham (3)
rec. Royal Festival Hall, 22 November 1954 (1); 25 November 1953 (3); Studio 1, Maida Vale, London, 21 December 1952. ADD


That Sir Thomas Beecham does not have a strong reputation as a Wagnerian is probably due to the vagaries of recording. But his pre-war performances of Wagner operas were legendary. During the post-war period he seems to have undertaken a single Wagner production, the famous 1951 Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden. 

To a certain extent this post-war falling off is a result of the changes to the musical establishment. It was no longer possible for Sir Thomas to present opera with the degree of control that he had during his pre-war seasons at Covent Garden. He had to negotiate with the management there and was evidently a decidedly skittish person to deal with. 

Sir Thomas’s post-war preoccupations were centred in the orchestral arena and from this period we have a selection of bleeding chunks of Wagner. But, interesting as they are, bleeding chunks do not completely make a reputation for Wagnerian performances. For that we must turn to the surviving fragments of Beecham recorded live. Of the pre-war performances there is a complete Tristan und Isolde the re-issue of which by EMI was fatally confused with a Fritz Reiner performance from the same period. Parts of Beecham’s Götterdämmerung survive, recorded in 1936. The surviving fragments - end of Act 1 and Act 2 - have appeared on disc. If you are keen, you can also acquire rather hazy off-air transcriptions of the 1951 Meistersinger.

These performances can give some idea of the magnificence of Beecham’s Wagner performances, his control of detail and of large-scale paragraphs. His performances are notably fleet and flexible. 

But to listen with a satisfactory degree of reproduction quality then we must turn to the bleeding chunks. On this disc, we have the first authorised issue of recordings made from concerts that Sir Thomas gave at the Royal Festival Hall and from a BBC radio session, with Kirsten Flagstad as the soprano. 

Flagstad made quite a number of appearances with Beecham during the pre-war period. He was one of the small band of conductors for whom she had great respect and with whom she got on well. 

Here, she has recorded the Wesendonck Lieder and the Liebestod. Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder owe their popularity to their sheer portability, compared to the majority of his repertoire, and their links to Tristan. The recording was made in 1952, a year before Flagstad’s final London appearance. She was 57 at the time and it is amazing how much of that magnificent voice survives. The sound is rather recessed and Flagstad’s passionate, gleaming tone is apt to sound a little steely. The voice retains focus and flexibility, though the top is thinner than ideal and there is the odd moment of hardness of tone. In “Stehe Still” there are some profoundly still moments of calm along with hints of waywardness at the top, but even so she remains powerfully communicative and very exciting. The orchestral opening of “Im Treibhaus” truly invokes Tristan and Beecham and his orchestra respond beautifully. Flagstad matches this opening in an ideal manner - her vocalisation is firm and shapely with a gleaming top. Again there are hints of over-steely tone and ideally I would have liked more warmth in the voice. But even so, there are few sopranos who can match this sort of tone in Wagner. In “Schmerzen” she combines power with cleanliness of attack. The result is so fine that it seems churlish to bring up the issue of the lack of warmth in the voice. Finally, in “Traume” she matches perfectly Beecham’s wonderfully misterioso opening.

The Prelude and Liebestod have a less than ideal boxy sound. Beecham’s flexibility and onward propulsion are ideal here. This is a relatively fleet performance, but it is not driven; the music ebbs and flows as it must. Flagstad matches Beecham; again her gleaming tone hints at steel. But more worryingly there are slight instabilities of tuning, though these are forgivable in a live performance. I enjoyed this performance but frankly I would prefer to listen to their live pre-war recording, with a younger Flagstad and the sheer drama of a complete performance behind them. 

In addition to these, we have two overtures. That of The Flying Dutchman gets the disc off to a rousing and exciting start, full of passion and drama, dragging us along bodily. I was desperately keen to learn how the opera proceeded, surely the sign of a good overture. In the prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, the lovely string tone is just discernible, ravishing even through the hiss. It made me regret that they could not have found a tenor to do Lohengrin’s two great solos with Beecham. 

As a make-weight we also get a 10 minute recording, made in 1949 of Kirsten Flagstad talking about singing Wagner. This is 10 minutes of down-to-earth practicality which should be on every young singer’s library shelves. 

This disc is not ideal, but SOMM are to be congratulated on the way that they have cleaned up these transfers. They give us, in the best possible condition, some of Sir Thomas Beecham’s last Wagner performances.

Robert Hugill

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf




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